When Alberta declared a State of Emergency on Saturday, May 6, 2023, as wildfires blazed out of control in the province’s north, REALTOR® John Dempster was one of the thousands of people fleeing their homes.
“You never think something like this is going to happen to you,” says Dempster, owner at RE/MAX Vision Realty in Drayton Valley, a community of more than 7,000 people about 130 km south of Edmonton. “I’ve never been in a crisis like this before and I can tell you that being evacuated in the dark at 11 p.m. as everyone is trying to leave town at the same time is kind of surreal.”
Support those affected by the wildfires in Alberta by visiting our REALTORS Care® fundraising page and making a tax-receiptable donation in support of the Canadian Red Cross.
Dempster and his wife Rachelle, a fellow REALTOR® and Co-owner/Broker at Vision Realty, had already been packing their suitcases on the night of Thursday, May 4 for a trip to Denver, Colorado that was planned for the next day. Even though they were keeping track of the wildfires bearing down toward their town, they, and everyone else were hoping for the best.
When their phones lit up with a provincial alert warning them to evacuate the area, they were able to grab their essential documents such as passports along with their clothes and move quickly. They raced across town to help at the homes of their three children, getting pets (including a dog, cat and turtle) and many family belongings to safety.
A few of the Dempster’s friends in Drayton Valley have lost their homes to the wildfires, which continued to rage in mid-May and draw firefighters from as far away as Ontario, British Columbia, the Yukon, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and parts of the U.S. including Alaska, Montana and Washington.
“Five minutes after we got the alert a fire truck roared through our subdivision with the siren blaring,” says Dempster, who almost two weeks after leaving the town was still in a rented accommodation in Edmonton that his wife was able to book. “Your mind is racing as you run around trying to ensure windows are closed and water is shut off because you don’t know when you can return.”
Many of their friends and neighbours were caught off guard and had to run from their homes to their vehicles wearing only the clothes on their backs, says Dempster.
He credits community spirit mixed with a shared sense of responsibilities as friends and neighbours helped each other out, ensuring that everyone could ease their vehicles onto the roadway out of town, even as danger drew near. Some helped to buttress areas of the town using their bulldozers and graders. Local companies pitched in and there were even some other REALTORS® who helped as volunteer firefighters, says Dempster.
Throughout the ordeal, Dempster says he felt supported by the REALTOR® community. “There were a number of REALTORS® Canada-wide who reached out to us personally and it was an emotional boost for all of us in the evacuation areas.”
On Tuesday, May 16, Dempster learned he and his wife would be able to return to their home in Drayton Valley.
“What people need now is financial assistance and that is why the REALTORS Care® fundraiser is so important,” says Dempster. “They are also going to need help talking to people for mental health because an event like this is unbelievably stressful.”
While Dempster was able to return home, the wildfires have continued to rampage throughout the province’s north. Firefighters are being stretched thin and the number of evacuations has topped 19,000. Dense smoke from the fires is reaching as far as Calgary, with hazy skies making their way as far as eastern Canada and the United States.
The events playing out in the province bring back sad memories from devastating wildfires of the past. The terrible 2016 Fort McMurray fire destroyed almost 2,500 homes and buildings and required the evacuation of 90,000 people. In 2011, the Slave Lake fire ruined some 400 properties and resulted in 7,000 people being evacuated.
What can you do to help?
To help those impacted, REALTORS® and friends are encouraged to make tax-receiptable donations using this REALTORS Care® fundraising page in support of the Canadian Red Cross’ Alberta Wildfires Appeal.
Donations will be used for immediate and ongoing relief, recovery and resilience efforts in response to fires, and community preparedness and risk reduction for future all-hazard disaster events within Alberta.